Narrative: Can’t Live With It. . .

Last week in my Historiography seminar I taught Hayden White’s classic 1966 The Burden of History.  This is the third time I’ve taught him (last two times were in 2000 and 2004) and each time, certain aspects of his argument seem fresh, others seem dated.  What’s wonderful is that those labels change each time.

Here he is writing about “methodological and stylistic cosmopolitanism” in history-writing (131):

Such a conception of historical inquiry and representation would open up the possibility of using contemporary scientific and artistic insights in history without leading to radical relativism and the assimilation of history to propaganda, or to that fatal monism which has always heretofore resulted from attempts to wed history and science. It would permit the plunder of psychoanalysis, cybernetics, game theory, and the rest without forcing the historian to treat the metaphors thus confiscated from them as inherent in the data under analysis, as he is forced to do when he works under the demand for an impossibly comprehensive objectivity. And it would permit historians to conceive of the possibility of using impressionistic, expressionistic, surrealistic, and (perhaps) even actionist modes of representation for dramatizing the significance of data which they have uncovered but which, all too frequently, they are prohibited from seriously contemplating as evidence. If historians of our generation were willing to participate actively in the general intellectual and artistic life of our time, the worth of history would not have to be defended in the timid and ambivalent ways that it is now done. The methodological ambiguity of history offers opportunities for creative comment on past and present that no other discipline enjoys. If historians were to seize the opportunities thus offered, they might in time convince their colleagues in other fields of intellectual and expressive endeavor of the falsity of Nietzsche’s claim that history is “a costly and superfluous luxury of the under- standing.”

What struck me about the quote then, as now (as I embark on the very narrative readings for this week), is that while we can say that historians got much more adventurous with types of source material, and much more connected with modern social science, mainstream historiography has not–at least not in the work read by this media historian–taken up White’s call for new modes of representation.  Most histories I read are still written in a narrative form, granted with adventure and variety, but I would not say we get a lot of  impressionistic, expressionistic, surrealistic, and (perhaps) even actionist modes of representation.  Sure, there are singular exceptions within history, like Carolyn Steedman, and outside it, like Michel Foucault or Friedrich Kittler.  Writers influenced by poststructuralism took a more ironic stance with respect to their sources.  But now, as then, the default mode, the accessible mode of history writing is the narrative mode.

Then again, it’s hard not to read this passage against the explosion of work in the digital humanities.  The difference is that that history may or may not turn out to be “written” in the same sense that the histories criticized by White were written.

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